"The golden era was the period from 1916 to 1928. It is a neglected period, forgotten often by the very men who enriched it. They have seen their films reissued on television; bad prints shown at the wrong speed have distorted their memory. Perhaps the ballyhoo meant nothing. Perhaps their much-praised pictures were as jerky and as primitive as they appear today.
They were not."
--From the introduction to The Parade's Gone By, by Kevin Brownlow
"I've always said that the pantomime is far more poetic and it has a universal appeal that everyone would understand if it were well done. The spoken word reduces everybody to a certain glibness. The voice is a beautiful thing, most revealing, and I didn't want to be too revealing in my art because it may show a limitation. There are very few people with voices that can reach or give the illusion of great depth, whereas movement is as near to nature as a bird flying. The expression of the eyes--there's no words. The pure expression of the face that people can't hide--if it's one of disappointment it can be ever so subtle. I had to bear all this in mind when I started talking. I knew very well I lost a lot of eloquence. It can never be as good."
--Charlie Chaplin, from the so-called Lost Interview with Richard Meryman, at ednapurviance.org
The Siren has seen only two pictures starring Barbara Kent, who has died at the age of 103. One is the 1933 shoestring Oliver Twist, with Kent as Rose. The other is Flesh and the Devil, in which Kent had the unenviable task of being the forsaken lover to Garbo's lascivious temptress. Still, it's the silent Flesh and the Devil that left a far stronger impression. Sound seemed to diminish this diminutive actress, as it did so many others. In pantomime, her tiny body made her even sweeter and more fragile, and it added poignance to her hurt over John Gilbert's betrayal.
Kent managed to continue her career into the talkie era, but never caught on as a big star, despite marrying her agent in 1934. She got out of the business in 1941. Read enough about Hollywood--or even a little--and you realize Barbara Kent's fate is no sad ending. She got, in fact, about the best you could hope for, short of a star's immortality. She lived a long, long life and, we hope, a good one.
Still, Kent's passing, which leaves Mickey Rooney as one of the only living actors who ever played in a silent, made the Siren well up, though the Siren knows some would tell her it's absurd to cry over the death of a woman you never met, whom you've seen only in two movies.
The Siren always knew she would most likely live to see every silent-film artist depart the planet before she did. But the Siren still wishes she'd gotten the chance to tell Kent, or any of the other artists that Kevin Brownlow has spent a lifetime celebrating, that she's sorry about all the years when so few people were even trying to preserve their legacy. Probably that wouldn't have meant much to Kent, anyway, since she spent most of her life refusing all interviews of any sort; the Times said Kent was sometimes known to deny that she ever had a film career at all. Who knows how she looked back on Hollywood, let alone the silents. Did she see a lost golden age, or just a quaint, irrelevant relic of a former lifetime? The Siren looks at images of the late Barbara Kent, and thinks only that we need to do better.